All major jewellery collectors are defined by one piece they own, a piece that becomes inextricably linked in the public’s imagination with its owner: with the Duchess of Windsor, it was her multi-coloured flamingo brooch; it is hard to picture Elizabeth Taylor without her famous emerald necklace- Marjorie Merriweather Post was defined by her Cartier emerald brooch.
Born in 1887, the four times married Mrs. Post was one of the great heiresses of her age. She was the only child of C.W. Post, founder of the Postum Cereal Company and at the tender age of 27 inherited a fortune estimated then at $250 million dollars. She was a great spender (in 1971 her clothing expenses amounted to around $250000 a year) and became a great collector and connoisseur. Her soft spot was beautifully crafted pieces and objects of vertu. She filled Hillwood, her principal residence, with china, Sevres porcelain, tapestries and Faberge.
It was inevitable that someone with such a fine eye for exquisite detail could fail to be enchanted by magnificent jewellery. Mrs. Post bought it prodigiously throughout her life and often remodelled existing pieces to suit changing tastes, a testament to her open mindedness to new design concepts.
Mrs. Post’s Cartier emerald brooch was not a special order, but it was a unique piece. It was created in 1928, the interwar period considered to be a time when the firm was at the height of its creative powers. The jewel is a triumph of Cartier’s art, an elegant marriage of Art Deco and the Indian style they were espousing due to the spectacular success they had re-setting stones for Maharajahs. Cartier’s love affair with India started in 1911, when the firm was commissioned to make dazzling pieces to be worn at the Delhi Durbar. Since then, they had been accumulating important carved Indian stones which they incorporated into spectacular unique pieces.
First and foremost in Cartier’s mind, jewellery had to be wearable and they had always avoided extreme movements such as Art Nouveau and Modernism. The brooch is very much Art Deco, but the lines are softened and not symmetrically harsh. It is also articulated and lends fluidity to what could have been a rather cumbersome piece. The geometric pentagonal central emerald, a 17th century carved Mughal stone, brings a perfect touch of exoticism to the jewel. Exoticism played a key role in Cartier’s style during the 1920s and 30s, with influences varying from India, China and Japan.
The brooch is also a masterclass in stone setting. The use of platinum in jewellery had been pioneered by Cartier at the beginning of the 20th century as it allowed stone setting in minimal metal- there is barely any metal visible in the calibre cut stones suspending the smaller fluted hanging emeralds. The brooch is beautifully finished off with a hallmark of Art Deco jewellery, black onyx detailing.
Marjorie Merriweather Post left Hillwood House and its contents to the Smythsonian Institute in 1968, retaining the right to live there for the rest of her life. However, the $10 million endowment she left did not produce sufficient income for its upkeep, so in 1976 it reverted to the Post Foundation. On her death in 1973, she also bequeathed to the Smythsonian her fabulous collection of jewels, which apart from the Cartier brooch included Marie Antoinette’s diamond earrings and the diamond necklace Napoleon presented to his second wife, Marie Louise, to celebrate the birth of their son.